Ludwig van Beethoven composed his Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61, in 1806.
Brahms wrote this magnificent concerto in the four years leading up to 1881, at the height of his career. It is a massive work, symphonic in its proportions. It has four movements in all, adding a scherzo to the usual three movements, making it one of the longest Romantic piano concertos ever written. The relationship between the solo piano and orchestra is unique and varied. While the pianist often has towering solos, fiendishly difficult passages and cadenzas, in many places there are chamber-music like interactions between the pianist and the orchestra.
The concerto opens with a sunny, sonorous horn solo, echoed by the piano and winds; the piano breaks into a dramatic cadenza (akin to the opening of Beethoven’s “Emperor” piano concerto), after which the main theme is resoundingly taken up by the orchestra. A lyrical second theme is introduced by the orchestra, and then dramatically amplified by the piano. The main theme reappears in the horn in a minor key, and also heralds the sonorous recapitulation which eventually brings the movement to a close.
The second movement scherzo is anything but light-hearted. It has a tragic feel to it, punctuated by offbeats first in the lower strings and later on in the piano. A vigorous trio in the middle leads to passages of symphonic grandeur, before finding its way back to the opening theme.
After such a thunderous movement, the third movement, with its lyrical opening ‘cello solo, is a welcome respite of calm and serenity. The piano weaves delicate melodic wisps around a soft orchestral accompaniment, wandering into ever more-foreign sonorities, before the solo ‘cello solo gently guides everyone back to the main theme and key.
After the romantic fireworks and deep emotions of the first three movements, the last movement Allegretto grazioso presents a total contrast. It is lightly scored, with a delicate grace worthy of Mozart and Haydn. The main theme is almost childlike in its simplicity, tossed back and forth between soloist and orchestra. Three themes in the middle have a Hungarian or gypsy air about them. A sudden restatement of the main theme by the piano in fast 6/8 time ushers in the coda and triumphant conclusion of this superlative concerto.
Georg Philipp Telemann was one of the most prominent composers of the baroque era. Widely respected and well-known throughout Europe, he was a friend of Johann Sebastian Bach and corresponded with Handel. A self-taught musician, Telemann early on became adept at playing many instruments, including organ, violin, recorder, viola da gamba, double bass, flute, oboe and bass trombone.
Initially setting out to study law in Leipzig, his musical talents were quickly discovered. After holding a number of posts in Leipzig, Sorau, Eisenach and Frankfurt, in 1721 Telemann became music director in Hamburg of five churches as well as its opera, and remained in Hamburg for the rest of life. Telemann traveled widely throughout Europe, and was familiar with many different styles and schools of musical composition. He was a prolific composer, writing thousands of compositions, many of which survive. His output included operas, cantatas, orchestral suites, concertos, and chamber music.
The concerto grosso we’re playing today was composed by Telemann in 1716 to celebrate the birth of Prince Leopold, heir to Emperor Charles VI in Frankfurt. As befitting the occasion, Telemann scored it for an impressive array of instruments, including three trumpets and two oboes, highlighting them effectively throughout this piece.
The concerto opens with a stately intrada in “French Overture” style, with dotted rhythms. The second movement is a fugal allegro, first introduced by the violins and oboes, and taken up by the other instruments in turn. The aria-like third movement features a lyrical oboe solo set against a background of soft strings and continuo. The dance-like last movement closes out the concerto in joyous fashion, befitting the occasion for which it was written.
A prominent Soviet and Armenian composer, Alexander Arutiunian fused Russian and Armenian musical traditions to form his own unique style. His compositions range from his “Motherland Cantata” (for which he won the Stalin prize in 1948) to his violin concerto (Armenia-88) in homage to a devastating earthquake.
He also wrote a series of well-regarded brass and woodwind concertos. Of these, the trumpet concerto, composed in 1950, is one of his best-known works and a staple of the trumpet solo literature. It is composed in seven sections played without a break. A dramatic improvisatory prelude transitions to a spritely allegro energico; slower introspective sections are interspersed with a periodic return to the “energico” theme. A brilliant cadenza and coda end the concerto with a flourish.
Brahms composed his violin concerto in the last half 1878, close on the heels of his second symphony. He worked on it closely with the Hungarian violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim (in fact, Joachim also wrote the cadenza most often heard in contemporary performances).
While originally conceived in four movements, this concerto has three — an opening Allego non troppo, a middle movement Adagio, and the final Allegro giocoso. It is practically symphonic in scope, with alternating passages by the orchestra and soloist designed to fully explore the rich thematic material.
The first movement opens with a lengthy orchestral exposition which contains most of the thematic material used by both the soloist and orchestra — a calm rising and falling triad (faintly reminiscent of the second symphony); an intense rising chromatic passage played in unison; a mysterious and soft descending three-note pattern; and an agitated and jagged dotted-note passage setting up the first entrance of the solo violin. The violin picks up on these themes and expands them, both in fiery passagework and lush melodies. The lengthy cadenza is a masterwork by Joachim, a tour-de-force of virtuosity and melody.
The second movement Adagio begins with a hushed wind choir, featuring a notable oboe solo, which is echoed by the solo violin. After an impassioned development, the opening theme returns with a violin obbligato on top of the original wind theme. The last movement is a gypsy-like rondo, ending with the theme restated as a march.
Schumann composed this masterpiece for four French horns and orchestra in 1849, one of his most productive musical years. Rarely performed because of its unusual instrumentation and difficulty, the Konzertstück is rich in inventiveness and lyricism. While titled a “concertpiece,” it is essentially a concerto for four horn soloists.
There are three interlinked movements, played without a break. The initial “Lebhaft” opens with two strong orchestra chords, immediately followed by rising horn arpeggios heralding the main theme. The slow “Romanze” movement features a tender theme in the oboes, solo ‘cello and violas, picked up in turn by the horns; a flowing chorale movement appears in the middle of the movement. The lively last movement is full of horn figurations. It features brisk dialogue between the orchestra and soloists, and a short chorale interlude based on the middle movement, before drawing to a bravura ending.
Sir Edward Elgar was a dominant force in English music at the turn of the 20th century. His magnificent ‘cello concerto was composed in 1919; more recently, it has become identified with the great ‘cellist Jacqueline du Pré, who made it into her signature piece (and is used in the movie Hilary and Jackie).
This four movement work displays an astonishing sweep of emotion and melody, from tragedy and pathos to exuberance. After a declamatory ‘cello opening, the first movement settles into an introspective lilt, punctuated by solo flourishes and dramatic orchestral statements. It is followed without a break by the witty second movement, with its brilliant solo passagework and lightly textured accompaniment. A romantic adagio allows the ‘cello to display its singing qualities to the fullest. The dramatic last movement is at times almost operatic, with the ‘cello and orchestra playing off each other’s themes; towards the end, themes from the adagio and opening movements make an encore appearance before a dash to the dramatic finish.
This is Dvořák’s last concerto, largely written in 1894-5 during his time in New York. Dvorak had come to the United States in 1892 in response to an invitation to become the head of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City, and stayed here until 1895. Dvorak composed a number of his best-know works during his American interlude, including his 9th (“New World”) Symphony, the “American” String Quartet (Op. 96), and the ‘cello concerto. He was not initially inclined to write a concerto featuring the ‘cello; he changed his mind after attending a concert in New York of a ‘cello concerto by Victor Herbert, which inspired him to write his own.
The first movement opens with a quiet statement of the theme in the woodwinds, gradually rising to a boisterous rendition by the full orchestra. The wistful second theme is introduced by the horn. Both themes are featured in the solo ‘cello, the first theme now reappearing as a heraldic restatement. There is a constant interweaving and interplay of soloist and orchestra, punctuated by solo pyrotechnics that grow out of the thematic material. A number of “grandioso” passages by the orchestra also feature the first theme in heroic fashion.
The introspective second movement begins softly with clarinets; the lyrical melody is picked up in turn by the soloist. The middle of the movement is based on a theme from a Czech song (“Leave me Alone”), written as an homage to his beloved sister-inlaw Josefina, who was in failing health. A solo cadenza is accompanied by flute and other woodwinds; a hushed passage featuring ‘cello harmonics brings the movement to a close.
The third movement is based on a robust theme introduced by the winds, then picked up by the soloist and orchestra in turn. The end of the movement also features another section of the song “Leave me Alone,” this time in the solo violin accompanying the ‘cello. The movement gradually winds down into a sighing whisper; a short rousing conclusion brings the concerto to a triumphant close.
This violin concerto is an early work by Bach, probably written in the 1720s while he was resident in Weimar. It is one of his most frequently-recorded and beloved works, and a masterful example of interplay between the violin soloist and string orchestra.
The first movement allegro starts off with a vigorous rising three-note motif, repeated in major and minor keys throughout, and contrasted with rising and falling 16th-note scales.
The second movement is a deeply felt and introspective adagio. Its main theme is an ostinato (repeating) figure in the ‘celli, basses and continuo, against which the solo violin weaves intricate figurations in an intimate musical exchange.
The last movement is a triple-meter rondo, in which the rousing string theme is interspersed with solo violin variations.